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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Ancient Greeks, Mathematicians, and Romantic Idealism: How to Find the Perfect Match

I recently re-listened to an old Radiolab episode whose beginning filled me with a warm, fluttery excitement for love. Give a listen to this 2,400-year-old story that comes from Plato by way of Aristophanes (it’s transcribed below in case you can’t listen, though the cello and Robert Krulwich’s voice give it something, more):

(0:53 - 3:17)

My first reaction was predictable: “Ain’t love grand?” I grow up, I read, I write, I fall into love, I fall out of love, I feel alone, until one day, at a small bookstore on a busy Parisian street, or at a café along the river Thames, I meet a girl who knows me, but has never known me and I know her, but have never known her and we take a chance with each other. Romantic. Cheesy.

“Stupid,” said my second reaction.

“What? No. Not stupid. Aristophanes and Robert Krulwich just said—we’re looking for our other half. The butterflies! The strangeness! That ineffable something.” But my second reaction wouldn't relent: “That’s all sweet and endearing, but ‘other half?’ You really think there’s only one person on a planet of 7.3 billion who’s right for you?”

OK. So my second reaction had a point. There’s a lot of people and, in all likelihood, many, many “perfect” matches out there. I guess that shouldn’t come as a revelation. But how many perfect matches? And how do I find them?


Optimal stopping theory, to be precise. See, we don’t know the science behind why we love those we love. But mathematicians have devised a science to predict around when we usually find that special someone, along with other things. It goes like this: in the first 37 percent of your dating window (the first 37 percent of the time between when you start dating and when you’d ideally like to be married), you should just reject everybody. Kick ‘em to the curb. Cut your losses and move on. Then, pick the next person who’s better than anyone you’ve seen before and settle down with them*. Mathematicians have found this to be the surest way to maximize your chances of a happy, lasting, dare I say true love.

Now, this strategy does come with some risks. You could meet the best possible candidate in the first 37 percent, and then, according to the formula, you’d have to let ‘em go. And since you’d never find anyone better, you’d live out the rest of your life in desperate, hopeless misery and die alone.

Or, your first 37 percent of dates could be so utterly repulsive that anything after that first window is a step up, which means instead of Prince Charming, you could settle for Prince marginally-less-terrible than the First 37 percent of people you dated, missing out on that guy or gal who really sets off the fireworks (Hannah Fry lays all this out and more in herTED talk—jokes included). But we’re dealing in probabilities here and optimal stopping theory offers the best statistically proven chance of marrying the person that’ll make you happiest.

All that being said, something about using this formula just feels…wrong—and the scientist in me is aware that it probably works more times than it doesn't. But why do we need that kernel of certainty? Isn’t love about the uncertainty, about not knowing until the day you wake up and just decide to buy the ring? I’d like to think so. And until then, wandering cobblestone streets in European countries in search of a spark doesn’t sound like too bad an idea. So I’ll pass on the numbers; my money’s on my gut.

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“ ‘Once upon a time,’ he [Aristophanes] says, ‘people were not born separate from each other, they were born entwined, kinda coupled with each other. So there were boys attached to boys, and there were girls attached to girls, and of course, boys and girls together, in a wonderfully intimate ball. And back then we had eight limbs; there were four on top, four on the bottom and you didn't have to walk if you didn’t want to, you could roll—and roll we did. We rolled backwards and we rolled forwards, achieving fantastic speeds that gave us a kind of courage. And then the courage swelled to pride. And the pride became arrogance and then we decided that we were greater than the Gods and we tried to roll up to heaven and take over heaven and the gods, alarmed, struck back and Zeus, in his fury, hurled down lightning bolts and struck everyone in two, into perfect halves. So all of a sudden couples who’d been warm and tight and wedged together were now detached, and alone, and lost, and desperate, and losing the will to live. And the gods, seeing what they’d done, worried that humans might not survive or even multiply again and then, of course they needed the humans to give sacrifices and pay attention to them, so the gods decided on a few repairs: instead of heads facing backwards or out, they would rotate our heads back forward; they pulled our skin taut and knotted it right here at the bellybutton; genitalia, too, were moved to the front, so if we wanted to, you know, we could; and most important, they left us with a memory—it was a longing for that original, other half of ourselves, the boy or the girl who used to make us whole. And that longing is still so deep in all of us, men for men, women for women, men for women, for each other, that it has been the lot of humans ever since to travel the world looking for our other half. And when,’ says Aristophanes, ‘when one of us meets another, we recognize each other right away, we just know this. We’re lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy; we won’t get out of each other’s sight for even a moment. These are people,’ he says, ‘who pass their whole lives together and yet, if you ask them, they could not explain what they desire of each other, they just…do.’ ”

*There’s a graphic representation that makes the formula clearer available in Hannah Fry’s TED talk at 9:02.

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